Fracking can be safely carried out near a renowned tourist drawcard in Australia's red centre and some Aboriginal people support the project for the royalties it will bring, according to a mining company chief behind the controversial bid.
Traditional owners of the Watarrka National Park, which includes the Kings Canyon gorge, on Tuesday expected to seek a meeting with Environment Minister Greg Hunt in Canberra, urging him to act quickly to protect the land.
Lawyers acting for the group intend to file an emergency application for heritage protection for Watarrka, under the National Heritage List and other laws.
The Northern Territory government is assessing an application by Palatine Energy to explore for shale oil and gas across more than 1000 square kilometres of the national park. It would include the contentious fracking technique, which opponents say can threaten water supplies.
Traditional owners have no legal right to veto the application, which Environmental Defenders Office Northern Territory principal lawyer David Morris said risks damaging areas of environmental and spiritual importance.
"[Traditional owners] say Watarrka is a place of incredible significance … there's a huge number of dreamings that go through that site, stories from the creation time, and many of those stories revolve around water," he said.
"Watarrka is one of the few places in that desert area where you would always find water. There's a huge number of springs and water holes found across the park."
Traditional owner Marjorie Breaden said: "Water is the main thing around there you know. I don't know what happens if the water goes or gets messed up, that water has been there since time began."
Fracking associated with coal seam gas mining has divided communities in Australia's eastern states and staunch public opposition has stymied that industry's development in NSW.
Palatine managing director David Falvey said his firm's project involved exploration for shale oil and gas, and his project would take necessary measures to ensure the environment was not polluted.
He said local Aboriginal communities would be in line for royalties from the project and some traditional owners wanted it to proceed.
"They expressed it very clearly to me and the [Northern Territory] ministers in a letter, saying they wanted jobs, royalties for community development and they want educational opportunities for their children," Dr Falvey said.
He added that fracking had been occurring in nearby mining projects for several decades and "they have been doing it very successfully".
"We offered exclusion zones around the tourist facility, around the canyon itself and around the community areas and around the conservation zone," Dr Falvey said.
A spokeswoman for Mr Hunt said any application for heritage protection of the park "will be carefully considered".
A spokeswoman for Northern Territory Mines Minister David Tollner said he was considering whether to create an exclusion zone in the Watarrka National Park.
"Should the minister consider granting an exploration permit over any area of the park, activity would not be permitted within the exclusion zone," she said.
"While there is no right of veto, the [traditional owners] are still able to express any concerns they may have."
The debate comes amid fresh calls for the federal and state governments to give landholders and traditional owners the legal power to refuse gas and mining companies seeking access to their land.
Lock the Gate representatives and Helen Bender, whose father George took his life after years of fighting coal seam gas mining, are in Canberra this week to argue that the Council of Australian Governments should agree to new laws protecting landholders from legal threats or court action if they deny access.
- With Lisa Cox